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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                     67
poured out to meet them. When the "troika" was seen
through the trees, the women ran towards it, and chasing
away the children who had come flocking too, surrounded
the sleigh and accompanied it to the dugouts, weeping
and wailing. They were all in rags, and all seemed equally
aged. The smoke and soot from the fire-places in the
dugouts had darkened their faces, and only by their
sparkling eyes and their teeth, which glistened white
against their dark skin, was it possible to tell the young
women from the old.
"Women! Oh, you women! What have you collected
around here for? This isn't a show!" Grandad Mikhail
exclaimed angrily, tugging harder at his collar. uGet
out of the way, for heaven's sake! Good Lord, they're like
a lot of sheep! Daft!"
And from the crowd of women Alexei heard voices
"Oh, how thin he is! He really looks like a skeleton.
He isn't moving. Is he alive?"
"He's unconscious. What is the matter with him? Oh,
how thin he is, how thin!"
And then the ejaculations of amazement ceased. The
unknown but frightful experiences the airman must have
gone through deeply impressed these women, and while
the sleigh was being hauled along the edge of the forest,
drawing nearer to the underground village, a dispute
arose among them as to which of them was to take Alexei
into her dugout.
"My place is dry. Sand, all sand, and there is plenty
of air.... And I have a stove," argued a little, round-
faced woman with merry eyes, the whites of which
glistened like those of a young Negro.
"A stove! But how many of you are living there? The
smell alone is enough to send you to kingdom come! Put
him into my place, Mikhail. I have three sons in the
Soviet Army, and I have a little flour left. I'll bake him
some flat cakes!"
"No, no! Put him into my place. I've got plenty of
room. There's only two of us, and we have a lot of
space. Bring your flat cakes to me, it makes no difference
to him where he eats them. Ksyusha and I will take care
of him, you can be sure of that. I have some frozen bream